National Catholic Register


An Iowa Boy in Vatican Corridors

BY Jim Nicholson

March 3-9, 2002 Issue | Posted 3/3/02 at 1:00 PM


Jim Nicholson emerged from a childhood marked by hardship.

He was accepted to West Point and went on to earn a Bronze Star as an Army Ranger paratrooper in Vietnam. Later, he became a lawyer and real estate developer and, after switching party affiliation, rose through the ranks to become chairman of the Republican National Committee. Last September, Nicholson took up his appointment as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. He recently spoke from Rome with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.

You're from Iowa originally, aren't you?

I grew up in Struble, a small town in Northwest Iowa. It had a population of 99 when I grew up there. Today it has a population of 67. My father suffered from the disease of alcoholism and was quite itinerant. He ended up being a feed and fertilizer salesman. My mother stayed at home until the children had grown. She later taught. She was a real stickler for education. We had some tough times during my teen-age years, but she saw education as being the key to getting ahead in America, so all seven of us children went onto college.

I understand that times were hard and you often had to rely on the kindness of neighbors?

Yes, we lived in a tenant house out in the country without electricity, plumbing or transportation. Sometimes we literally did not have food in the house. We went to a one-room school and sometimes the schoolteacher would send us food or get others to drop food off at our home. I remember one Christmas Day morning walking two miles with my father in knee-deep snow to buy some eggs at a nearby farmhouse. When we returned home mom used the eggs and some dried bread to make French toast. That was our Christmas dinner.

You were once a Democrat. What led you to switch parties?

My family grew up as Democrats. They liked Roosevelt. I went on to the Military Academy and went into the Army so I didn't have the opportunity to participate directly in politics.

I went on to law school in Denver and later became general counsel to the Colorado Home Builders Association. It was at this time that I realized that I wasn't a Democrat. As counsel I worked with small-business men and women trying to build homes and to provide shelter, and the Democrats were fighting them at every turn. They didn't want any growth in Colorado. That caused me to first change parties, and later I began helping Republicans to get elected.

You demonstrate that one can be both faithful and active in politics. How does one successfully bridge faith and politics?

They are certainly not mutually exclusive. My faith, and my belief in the power of prayer have always been important to me. I am a very grateful American – grateful to have grown up in a country that is so free and that provides such opportunities for people like me that come from such a humble background. It makes me very appreciative. This is also a country that provides for a great deal of religious freedom and the opportunity to practice one's faith. I believe that the two-party system we have in the U.S. has served us well and helped us to preserve that republic.

There is no jeopardy to one's faith in serving either party. I've met a lot of people very active in both parties that have a very active and important faith and prayer life.

You've been ambassador now for five months. What kinds of things have you been doing?

As the American ambassador I represent the President and the U.S. to the Holy See. It is my job to explain our country's positions in a way that is clear and understood so that the Vatican will appreciate our positions and agree with them more often than not.

One of the first things that you do after you are confirmed by the U.S. Senate is to present your credentials to the Head of the State, His Holiness John Paul II. That was scheduled far in advance for Sept. 13, 2001. When we met, at Castel Gandolfo, Pope John Paul II and I had a very long and personal conversation. The main topic of conversation, as you can imagine, was terrorism. The Holy Father said, “It's not just your country that has been attacked, but all of humanity.” He implored that in spite of the heinous act that the U.S. would maintain our tradition of preserving our system of justice in retaliation. I assured him that we would do that. They do not like bombs and bullets. They are into spirituality and ethics and morality and truth.

That meeting has set off a string of bilateral encounters where we have discussed our actions in Afghanistan and the just-war theory to try to get their support, and we have been trying to do that.

As former chairman of the Republican National Committee you successfully promoted unity within the Republican party. How did you go about this?

Essentially when I took over the party in January of 1997 it was a very dispirited and disjointed party. We had just lost a major national election and had lost confidence that we could win a national election. We were deeply in debt and very demoralized.

I put a plan together and began traveling the country to urge people to examine why we are Republicans. As Republicans we believe in freedom, and the sanctity of life, less government, and lower taxes. I stressed that if you believe in those things you are a legitimate Republican.

While we may not always agree on every issue, we are together on those core issues. We started raising some money and developed our values system, particularly on the issue of education. Day in, day out, in one city and state after another, I would meet with party leaders to share this message. In November of 1997 we won 19 of 19 races and showed that we could win. It wasn't space science, it was just common sense, hard work and adhering to our values.

Given that Catholics have historically aligned themselves with the Democratic Party do you think that Catholics will ever be comfortable in the Republican Party?

Yes, Catholics can be comfortable in either of the parties. If they examine the party's values and make an informed decision, I believe they can be comfortable. Since I am currently in a diplomatic position, I'd rather not let myself be taken down the road in a partisan discussion.

In terms of your work with the Vatican, are there any issues in particular, which the president has asked you to work on with the Holy See?

I met with the president right before coming here. At that time, terrorism was not on the screen the way it is now. The Middle East remains a major area of concern for the U.S. and the Holy See. Human rights and religious freedom are also major issues for both of us. We are also concerned with the use of biotechnology to help feed more of the Third World and the ethical issues surrounding that. We are also very involved in the issue of human trafficking.

Can you put the problem of human trafficking into terms for those unfamiliar with it? What efforts are being taken to address this issue?

Well, 21st century slavery is going on in large numbers. The State Department reported to the Congress that over 700,000 people were trafficked in the year 2000. These are people that were impressed against their will into some kind of servitude — women forced into prostitution and young children impressed into forced labor. It is happening on every continent and most countries around the world. It is a horrific epidemic and a major human rights tragedy that needs to be addressed in a strategic manner.

We need to have a heightened awareness of the scope and gravity of the problem. We are setting out to try to expand that awareness. On May 15-16, we will be hosting a major conference to explore human trafficking and its potential solutions at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. We are enjoying the active, enthusiastic support of the Holy See and will bring together experts to share information with each other and the world.

How is the Holy Father doing?

He is doing well. He suffers from a neurological condition and it causes him a great deal of frustration, but his mind is like a steel trap. There are so many things that he wants to do and so many places that he wants to go.

His condition forces him to move much more slowly. Nevertheless, he does an amazing amount. I spent a day with him in Assisi last Thursday. I see what he does on a daily basis and it's really incredible the schedule that he keeps.